Wednesday, October 04, 2006

China: time for a politics of climate change

Yesterday I joined Isabel Hilton and Becky Hogge in talking about chinadialogue.net with the Democracy Club in London. Isabel gave an overview. Becky described some of the technical challenges and achievements. This was fascinating and is worth a post and perhaps an article and discussion on chinadialogue itself. Some good points also came up in the discussion that followed. But here I want to publish some things I said regarding China's emissions, and the country's responsibilities.

My main point -- or challenge to engage -- for activists and others both inside and outside China is as follows. Yes, the richest industrialised nations need to act faster and more effectively to tackle climate change at home; but failure in the West is not a reason for people in China not to act urgently too. China may already exceed its share of globally sustainable emissions or is close to doing so, and the trend is negative notwithstanding all sorts of "green' investments. For reasons of basic self interest as well as natural justice, it is time for people in China to start engaging more actively with each other and the outside world on the politics of climate change.

The key points (or so I argue) are three. Here they are as a, b and c, followed by a request for responses:

A. China is close to or already exceeding its fair share of a "safe" level of emissions, and things are likely to get worse quickly.

Global emissions are currently about 7bn tonnes of carbon a year. China is the second largest single polluter, although the EU as a whole emits more. In 2004 China’s total emissions were about 1.2 billion tonnes – that is, about 17%, or slightly more than one sixth of the global total.

About one in five people on this planet is Chinese (actually 22%). If present day global emissions were allocated equally China would be entitled to about 1.5bn tonnes.

At recent rates of growth, Chinese emissions could take little more than three years to grow from 1.2bn tonnes, the level in 2004 to 1.5bn tonnes. This is assuming 10% annual economic growth and emissions rising more or less in step, which given consumption trends in China –- rising automobile ownership, more appliances in every household etc –- looks to me like a plausible scenario, although not of course the only one. (Incidentally, 10% growth gives a doubling time of a little over 8 years).

B. Where next?

Suppose you want to avoid dangerous climate change, or at least reduce the risk of it happening. The first step would be to slow and then stop the increasing rate of emission of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. The next step would be to reduce total global emissions.

A proposal for a first step embraced by some policy makers in rich industrial countries is that emissions be stabilised at twice pre-industrial levels – that at approximately 560ppm of C02 (see, for example, Socolow et al, Scientific American, Sept 2006).

Each part per million of C02 corresponds to about 2.1bn tonnes of atmospheric carbon. The current level – about 380ppm – is 800bn tonnes. 560ppm would mean about 1,200 tonnes. So another 400bn tonnes would take us to 1,200. On this reasoning, it looks as if the world could emit another 400 billion tonnes, but no more, and not exceed this target.

Some people argue that we could actually emit twice that amount because the oceans and vegetation on land will soak up half of it. That argument has been challenged. Changes in the earth system as the world warms can mean that vegetation and soils become a net source rather than sink; using the oceans as a sink is causing acidification which is likely to have other serious consequences).

Further, it is open to question whether a doubling of GHG concentrations is “safe” – that is whether it means we avoid some [potentially disasterous impacts in China], and others. Advisors to the British Government and others have suggested that 450 or even 400ppm may be nearer the mark (see, for example, Schellnhuber et al Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change - and this discussion at RealClimate)

Virtually every advance in climate science points to bigger human impacts and more serious consequences than previously predicted. That being the case, caution is wise. And time is short. 560ppm would allow 57 years at present rate. 450 would allow 21 years. 400 would allow just 7 years. But in each case, emissions would have to be zero in the year after so there is even less time available for a feasible and rational transition, supposing you wanted to do it.

C. A political challenge

One of the first things that comes up when China and climate change are mentioned in the same breath is that the richest countries, historically and still today, are by far the biggest emitters per head, and have the responsibility to act first. This is certainly true. And it is often stressed, including, on chinadialogue, by Yu Hongyuan of the Shanghai Institute for International Studies.

The responsibility of the rich industrialised nations to act first was recognised in the UNFCC in 1992 and in the Kyoto Protocol of 1997. China is a signatory to the Protocol, and benefits from some investment in clean and renewable energy projects under the CDM. The Europeans are also offering modest help for one coal plant with CCS by 2020 (you can read more on this an article by Jon Gibbins on chinadialogue).

In my view, as well as that of many others, the present level of commitment in rich countries is inadequate. These countries need to massively ratchet up their commitment to energy efficiency, demand management and clean energy at home and abroad. But – and again this is my view, that does not mean China has no responsibilities. Recall that is already close to or even past its “fair share” of the 7billion tonnes per year that is probably not safe.

In UK, after more than 20 years of concerted effort from scientists and their allies, we now have a mainstream politics of climate change. (Incidentally, openDemocracy hosted the first forum and debate with this title in spring 2005. It’s still there to view)

So far Britain’s politics of climate change includes such delightful spectacles as the son of Margaret Thatcher’s favourite corporate raider calling for limits on aviation at the Conservative Party Conference, and a motion being defeated.

It also includes David Miliband, the environment secretary, telling the Labour Party Conference that cutting carbon emissions should become the European Union’s primary purpose. He told delegates the EU would appeal to a new generation only if it came to stand for Environmental Union.

(It is notable by the way that both Zac Goldsmith and David Milliband are among the youngest members of the shadow team and the government)

Could something like this emerge in China? So far there are few outward signs. In November this year, for example, there will be demonstrations in over 50 countries calling for faster action to reduce emissions by the Conference of the Parties to the Climate Change Convention (). Activists in some poor and vulnerable countries, such as Bangladesh, will be taking part. Two of the major countries where no events are listed are China and India.

Perhaps the first steps for a visible politics of climate change China will come elsewhere. Maybe they will be modelled on the kind of work that Ma Jun, a writer and campaigner on water issues, is doing with his colleagues. Ma Jun recently launched a site that names 2,500 companies that have broken pollution regulations in the water environment (see his recent interview on chinadialogue).

Responses, please

If you have read this far and are still awake and interested, please let me know what you think is right, wrong (irrelevant, passe) with the arguments I have outlined. I haven't even touched on inequalities within China, for example. My calculations regarding emissions should be checked too.

The full text on which I based my remarks is attached as a comment.

Perhaps this could help inform future dialogue on chinadialogue or elsewhere.

By the way, Isabel disagreed that there were few signs of a politics of climate change inside China. She pointed out that in a one party state (albeit a fragile one) much of the politics tends to take place inside the party. Deputy Environment Minister Pan Yue, she said, was among those pushing for political change on this issue.

2 comments:

Caspar Henderson said...

This is the text on which I based remarks to the Democracy club on 3 Oct

China: time for a politics of climate change

I am going to tell a joke. Then I will talk briefly about three things: the possible impacts of climate change on China; China’s contribution to climate change; and China and the politics of climate change

But first, who here has seen Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth? Of those who have seen it, how many liked it? Of those who have not seen it, how many reckon they know something about the issues in it?

If you are not familiar with the science of climate change I ask for your patience because I am not going to go into it in these remarks. If you’d like more information on the science, please let me know afterwards, and I can recommend some places to start.

Joke

One of my favourite jokes, wheeled out on all sorts of occasions, is that there is only one phrase you need to know in any language. That phrase is “my friend will pay”. I still haven’t learned this phrase in Chinese.

I haven’t heard any good jokes about climate change recently, and would be glad to learn some. Meanwhile, here is something at least amusing from the last Friday’s FT:

“Most movie-goers favour a box of popcorn; but passengers on Virgin Atlantic [from London to New York] can now watch Al Gore's alarming lecture on climate change An Inconvenient Truth while guzzling their way through 240,000 litres of jet fuel”.

The movie has proved a runaway success on planes, the FT reports, with some of the highest viewing figures ever recorded.


Impacts of climate change on China

An assessment of the regional impacts of climate change in China and the part of Asia in which it sits can be found in the IPCC third assessment report, published back in 2001. The fourth assessment, schedule for publication early in 2007 is likely to contain more.

For an overview see chinadialogue.net where the glacialogist Stephan Harrison, and others, outline some of the likely impacts:

1. Water supplies. Many of the great rivers of the Asian continent (Yellow, Mekong, Indus, Ganges and others) have their headwaters on the Tibetan plateau. In over 100 major cities in China the water situation is critical. In China. Recession of the mountain glaciers threatens to disrupt the water supply of many hundreds of millions people and the agriculture on which they depend. As is the case with other arid Asian countries, climate change, water supply, and social and economic stability are inextricably linked.

2. Dust storms. Climate change, allied to unsustainable land-use practices, is increasing the number and size of dust storms from China’s deserts. A report in 2001 showed that 2,300 square kilometers of topsoil is lost to dust storms each year from northern China alone. This year, northern China experienced 13 major dust storms, one of which deposited over 330,000 tons of sand in Beijing in April. Others have deposited dust in Russia, South Korea and the central United States.

3. Permafrost melting. Dust storms are also associated with thawing of previously frozen soils and, with much of the Tibetan plateau underlain by permafrost, climate change threatens to increase the scale of desertification in the region. Of wider concern is the likely positive feedback to global warming caused by the release of greenhouse gases such as methane and carbon dioxide from frozen soils as they thaw.

"Recent studies have shown that methane will be released if melting permafrost produces waterlogged soils, and carbon dioxide if the soils dry out. With estimates of the amount of carbon locked up in permafrost ranging between 60 and 190 billion tons, thawing of the soil over vast tracts of the Tibetan plateau will produce an enormous release of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere and a likely further step-change in global warming, with severe consequences for us all".

4. Storms, sea level rise and sea surge. This is a set of impacts that Stephan Harrison does not discuss in his contribution to chinadialogue. But in his movie (and on chinadialogue) Al Gore says that if half the Greenland Ice Cap and half the W Antarctic Ice shelf melt then “twenty million people around Beijing would have to relocate, 40 million people around Shanghai, 60 million people around Calcutta, millions more in other coastal cities”.

This may be true, but one of the things Gore doesn’t mention is that we could already be seeing the kinds of effects of climate change on storms in China this year.

At the risk of sensationalising, I will say that China has already had its own version of Hurricane Katrina in the form of four terrible storms that hit the coast this summer. These didn’t make many headlines in the West, and I have Simon Donner of Princeton University to thank for drawing attention to a story from AP in August “Communities in southeastern China are straining to resettle more than 15 million people left homeless by four devastating typhoons in recent months, the official Xinhua News Agency reported [on 25 August (?)]. The storms caused $3.6 billion in direct damage, Xinhua said, citing provincial officials in Fujian, the province worst hit by the disasters.

AP continues: “The most recent storm, Saomai, hit Fujian in mid-August, killing 441 people. It was the worst storm since record-keeping began in 1949, according to the government. Each summer brings catastrophic weather to China, usually in the form of torrential rains and tropical storms. But this year, while coastal regions are rebuilding from floods and typhoons, many inland areas are enduring their worst drought in decades”.


China’s contribution to climate change

Global emissions are currently about 7bn tonnes of carbon a year. China is the second largest single polluter, although the EU as a whole emits more. In 2004 China’s total emissions were about 1.2 billion tonnes – that is, about more than 17% (0.171) of the global total, not far from a sixth (0.1667) of the total. (I will return to the estimate of China’s total emissions in a moment)

About one in five people on this planet is Chinese (actually 22%). If present day global emissions were allocated equally China would be entitled to around 1.4bn tonnes.

At recent growth Chinese emissions could take less than three years to grow from 1.2bn to 1.4bn tonnes. (This is assuming 10% annual economic growth and emissions rising in step, which given consumption trends in China – rising automobile ownership, more appliances in every household etc – looks to me like a plausible scenario, although not of course the only one. Incidentally, 10% growth gives a doubling time of a little over 8 years).

(Other activities in China besides emissions from combustion can contribute to climate change)

It is true that a lot is being invested in China in low(er) carbon technologies. But this is nothing like sufficient to tackle the growth in enery demand, still likely to be met overwhelmingly for many years hence by coal, oil and gas.


Side note on figures:

China’s emissions:

The most alarming failure of greenhouse gas emissions reporting is thought to have occurred in China. In the late 1990s, when its economy was growing by 10 per cent a year, the Chinese government reported a dramatic fall in CO2 emissions to the UN climate change convention. It declared that, after a long period of steep increases, emissions had fallen from 911 million tonnes of carbon a year in 1996 to 757 million tonnes in 2000, a drop of 17 per cent.

China said the fall in emissions was achieved by burning less coal, an assessment it based on a decline in coal production. Some analysts praised the country for using coal more efficiently, but that picture was called into doubt when declared coal production and emissions estimates resumed their fast rise. Estimates for 2004 put China's CO2 emissions above 1200 million tonnes.

Most analysts now conclude that the drop in emissions was entirely illusory. It coincided with major changes in the organisation of the Chinese coal industry, which replaced state targets with a market system. "Emissions figures before 1996 were inflated because mine officials had production targets to meet, and declared they had met them when they had not," one analyst told New Scientist. By 2000, this effect had gone, and "subsequent figures for CO2 emissions are probably more accurate as a result." While the Chinese government may not have intentionally misled the international community over its emissions at the time, the incident reveals how easy it could be to fiddle official figures.

-- Fred Pearce in New Scientist, 22 June 2006



The politics of climate change

Where next?

Suppose you want to avoid dangerous climate change, or at least reduce the risk of it happening. The first steps would be to slow and then stop the increasing rate of emission of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. The next step would be to reduce total global emissions.

A proposal for a first step embraced by some policy makers in rich industrial countries is that emissions be stabilised at twice pre-industrial levels – that at approximately 560ppm of C02.

Each part per million of C02 corresponds to about 2.1bn tonnes of atmospheric carbon. The current level – about 380ppm – is 800bn tonnes. 560ppm would mean about 1,200 tonnes. So another 400bn tonnes would take us to 1,200. On this reasoning, it looks as if the world could emit another 400 billion tonnes, but no more, and not exceed this target .

Some people argue that we could actually emit twice that amount because the oceans and vegetation on land will soak up half of it. That argument has been challenged. Changes in the earth system as the world warms can mean that vegetation and soils become a net source rather than sink; using the oceans as a sink is causing acidification which may have other serious consequences).

Further, it is open to question whether a doubling of GHG concentrations is “safe” – that is whether it means we avoid some of the impacts I mentioned earlier, and others.

Advisors to the British Government suggest that 450 CO2 equivalent (which means about 400ppm CO2) may be nearer the mark. And it is not clear that even this level would be "safe".

Virtually every advance in climate science points to bigger human impacts and more serious consequences than previously predicted. That being the case, caution is wise (if not perhaps turning off all the lights right now, as Oliver Postgate suggests!). And time is short. 560ppm would allow 57 years at present rate. 450 would allow 21 years. 400 would allow just 7 years. (In each case, emissions would have to be zero in the year after)

Politics, politics

One of the first things that comes up when China and climate change are mentioned in the same breadth is that the richest countries, historically and still today are by far the biggest emitters per head, have the responsibility to act first. This is certainly true. And it is often stressed, including, on Chinadialogue, by Yu Hongyuan of the Shanghai Institute for International Studies.

The responsibility of the rich industrialised nations to act first was recognised in the UNFCC in 1992 and in the Kyoto Protocol of 1997. China is a signatory to the Protocol, and benefits from some investment in clean and renewable energy projects under the CDM. The Europeans are also offering modest help for one coal plant with CCS by 2020 (you can read more on this in a piece by Jon Gibbins on chinadialogue).

In my view, rich countries need to massively ratchet up their action on energy efficiency, demand management, clean energy and a host of associated activities at home (above all) and abroad (through aid and investment). But – and again this is my view, that does not mean China has no responsibilities or that it is wise for people in China to wait until this happens. Recall that is already close to or even past its “fair share” of the 7billion tonnes per year that is probably not safe.

In UK, after more than 20 years of concerted effort from scientists and their allies, we now have a mainstream politics of climate change. (Incidentally, openDemocracy, a sister site to cd hosted the first forum and debate with this title in spring 2005. It’s still there to view)

So far Britain’s politics of CC includes such delightful spectacles as the son of Margaret Thatcher’s favourite corporate raider calling for limits on aviation at the Conservative Party Conference, and a motion being defeated.

It also includes David Miliband, the environment secretary, telling the Labour Party Conference that cutting carbon emissions should become the European Union’s primary purpose. He told delegates the EU would appeal to a new generation only if it came to stand for Environmental Union.

(It is notable by the way that both Zac Goldsmith and David Milliband are among the youngest members of the shadow team and the government)
Could something like this emerge in China? So far there are few outward signs. In November this year, for example there will be public demonstrations in over 50 countries calling for faster action to reduce emissions by the COP to the CCC (http://www.globalclimatecampaign.org). Two countries where no events are listed are China and India. But activists in some poor and vulnerable countries, such as Bangladesh, will be taking part.

But the first steps may come coming elsewhere. Maybe they will be modelled on the kind of work that Ma Jun, a writer and campaigner on water issues in China, is doing with his colleagues. Ma Jun recently launched a site that names 2,500 companies that have broken pollution regulations in the water environment. (You can find more about this work in an interview on chinadialogue!)

End by quoting Walt Petterson, a writer on energy and sustainable development Running The Planet: ‘No one knows all the answers. We may not even be asking the right questions. We’re all in this together, and we’ll need all the help we can get.’

Douglas Coker said...

Thanks Caspar. I found this post very useful. Having Contraction and Convergence as an inspirational guiding policy framework is no guarantee that the Chinese will not overshoot their sustainable CO2 allocation.

A huge country with 1.3bn people, many existing environmental problems and more to come, needs tracking by experts. I have little to offer on how to persuade China to develop in a sustainable way.

I do hope as many Chinese as possible see An Inconvenient Truth - which is very good. The graphic illustration of Beijing and Shanghai being inundated as sea levels rise is frightening. All that concrete, all that "development". Looking back from 100 years hence it will clearly be seen as some sort of madness. But we are not very good at looking even 5 or 10 years forward it seems.

I can't offer to help with checking the numbers. I don't have sufficient expertise and my head is still hurting from reading George Monbiot's Heat!!

And what about India?

Douglas Coker